“What time is it in the Mennonite Church?” keynote speaker Frank Scoffield Sánchez asked at Mennonite Church USA’s 10th Hope for the Future conference Feb. 3-5 in Atlanta.
With a theme from the biblical story of Esther — “Such a Time as This” — the event brought together more than 70 Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
The weekend offered space to acknowledge collective trauma and hope during times of worship, connection and renewal.
Atlanta was an apt location, considering its balance between hope and trauma. Conversation first turned to the historical removal of Indigenous people from the land in Georgia, then to present attempts to preserve Atlanta’s forest, which resulted in the death of an activist just weeks before Hope for the Future.
Atlanta has deep roots in the Civil Rights Movement and the hope that became realized through the work of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. Attendees were encouraged to explore this history by visiting The King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Even closer to home for Mennonites is Vincent Harding, and speakers acknowledged his legacy with the Mennonite House, a Mennonite Central Committee voluntary service unit and a center of civil rights.
Attendees held space for the coexistence of trauma and hope, and space for each other, too. Daniela Lazaro-Manalo, MCC racial equity education and advocacy coordinator and a keynote speaker, invited attendees to reconnect with their bodies and acknowledge their burdens.
“These are times of crisis,” said Scoffield Sánchez, a member of Pasadena Mennonite Church in California. Borrowing from activist Grace Lee Boggs, he asked, “Will we take these as times of opportunity?”
Scoffield Sánchez wove in the words of Ecclesiastes 3, which proclaims there is a time for everything — and the rest of the weekend made time for mourning and reflection, celebration and hope.
This was the first Hope for the Future conference since the pandemic and the trauma it has caused. In this context and beyond, Sue Park-Hur, Hope for the Future coordinator and MC USA director of racial ethnic engagement, invited Wilma Bailey to consider the story of Esther.
“We wanted to bring a trauma-informed understanding of reading Scripture,” said Park-Hur of the decision to invite Bailey. “I want us to sit under her feet and glean her wisdom.”
One of the first Black Anabaptist scholars of the Old Testament and a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture at Christian Theological Seminary, Bailey challenged listeners to pay attention to gendered dynamics between Esther and the men around her.
“When studying the Bible,” she said, “it’s important to consider from whose point of view is this coming.”
Attendees celebrated the inclusion of more biracial members and members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community than ever before. There was also an emphasis on intergenerational connections and the impact each generation has on others. Several parents attended with their children, and nine students attended from MC USA-affiliated higher education schools.
For Goshen College student Bongiwe Victoria Ncube, the weekend was a chance to learn.
“I hoped that the lessons that I would learn would help me gain a better understanding of what I can do as a BIPOC student to make sure that other BIPOC students I encounter on campus feel welcome,” she said.
Intergenerational relationships were at the forefront of two learning labs. MC USA executive director Glen Guyton and Park-Hur moderated two intergenerational panels with Leonard Dow of Everence, Joseph Manickam of Hesston College, Danilo Sanchez of Mosaic Mennonite Conference, Abby Endashaw of MCC Central States, Alicia Maldonado-Zahra of Center for Community Justice and Hyacinth Stevens of MCC East Coast. Panelists reflected on the role of mentorship in their lives.
“How do we pass on information from generation to generation?” Guyton asked. “How do we equip one another? Well, we have to be able to network and talk.”
Attendees also had the chance to learn about best practices for diversity, equity and inclusion in a learning lab facilitated by Marisa Smucker, senior executive for ventures at Mennonite Mission Network, and Madalyn Metzger, vice president of marketing for Everence.
In the learning lab on radical hospitality, Anton Flores-Maisonet discussed his work with Casa Alterna, an organization that supports asylum seekers in Georgia.
A gala was held to honor seven community elders and their legacies.
“One thing we can continue to do as a community is to acknowledge the importance of our elders as we remember what has been given to us sacrificially and courageously,” Park-Hur said. She acknowledged two elders, Michelle Armster and John Powell, who were unable to attend.
Other honorees — Kim Vu Friesen, Marco Güete, Susan Hart, Wilma Bailey and Iris de León-Hartshorn — shared wisdom and laughter in equal measure.
“You can get really worn down, and you can get tired,” said de León-Hartshorn, MC USA associate executive director for operations. She brought smiles to faces as she let attendees in on a fond memory from the 2001 World Conference against Racism in South Africa and the joy she felt fellowshiping with BIPOC colleagues and friends.
“When I get really depressed and think things aren’t going to change, I pull one of those stories out,” she said.
Hart reflected on an interaction with a child who had the courage to go to God with a bold request. She used that example as a reminder to attendees to “have that strength of faith.”
The gala included performances by violinist and Bethel College student Josué Coy Dick and spoken-word poet Myriam Johnstone. Students knelt before elders to receive a blessing.
Bluffton University student Kennedy Weaver, speaking not just of the elders but of all the leaders in the room, said it was encouraging “to see these people so confident in their work. I just kept imagining myself in their position in the future, so it was very inspiring.”
As the conference concluded, keynote speaker Jerrell Williams, pastor at Salem Mennonite Church in Oregon, reminded attendees their time together couldn’t last forever. He reflected on the importance of being present.
“People will remember when you have shown up for them in the valleys,” he said. “Now is the time to get to work.”
Hope for the Future was co-sponsored by the MC USA Executive Board and the MC USA agencies Everence, Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Mission Network. Everence and the Schowalter Foundation provided additional funding to sponsor student participants.
Elisabeth Ivey is the managing editor for MennoMedia, an agency of MC USA.